B.D. Wong has known Alice Chan for years. Well, not literally; she’s a fictional character concocted by Wong and playwright Robert Lee. She’s nerdy, socially awkward, ostracized by everyone in her elementary school—and really funny. “Alice Chan was this person that made us laugh infinitely because we knew people like her in our backgrounds, in school,” explained Wong.
But she didn’t have a vehicle until La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley asked Wong to create a show for the theatre’s POP Tour program, which tours original shows for young audiences. Wong was in the midst of an artist residency at La Jolla, and he jumped at the chance. At last, here was a way to introduce Alice to a wider audience! Just don’t call his and Lee’s cowritten production Alice Chan, touring through April 1, children’s fare.
“I don’t like calling it a kid’s show; that’s so reductive,” he said. Wong prefers the term “show for younger people.”
Alice Chan follows the titular character, whose nickname is “Queen of the Science Fair.” She is thrown out of her comfort zone when teachers cast her as the lead in the fifth grade play. To make matters worse, the most popular girl in the class is made her understudy and acting coach. It’s a comedic clashing of worlds. It’s also a lesson in tolerance.
Wong said he relates to the quality that makes Alice such an outcast (“She’s a real thinker,” he said), and said he thinks that all kids “can kind of relate on some level to that. We want them to appreciate difference.” But he also hopes that audiences “appreciate the concept of doing something new that you’ve never done before so that you can be even happier than you already think you are.”
Wong is no stranger to the younger set. In recent years, he has been working with Rosie’s Theater Kids, an educational nonprofit in New York City. Incidentally, he recalled that his first Actors’ Equity gig was in a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) agreement, which included touring and three performances a day. “It is a contract that is brutal,” he admitted, but he also said it’s “valuable. If you have anything remotely interesting or helpful to say to young people, this is a great way to say it.”
Alice Chan is in the midst of a two-month tour through San Diego County elementary schools; it will also have performances at the Playhouse March 5–6. By the end, an estimated 20,000 kids will have seen it. And they will have seen something that’s still all too scarce but inarguably constructive: a show featuring a hero of color.
“It is a such a rare thing for there to be a play that has the name of a non-white person in the title,” Wong said. “She’s the heart of the play, and I strongly believe that the audience will really bond with her and root for her. She comes around on the other side triumphant, so there’s hope there for anyone who thinks of themselves as an Alice Chan.”